On the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
The disciples went home amazed, but not after plenty of doubting, “Christ is risen? Nope- I don’t believe you, Mary.” I get it. The last thing the grieving disciples want to hear is someone telling them to “cheer up! Jesus didn’t really die!” “But I saw it,” Peter thinks. “I was there, I felt it too. My grief is real!”
Peter’s emotional journey reveals something we all know deep within our souls: the best hope emerges after deepest grief. I spent a lot of time with a particular friend I met in seminary during her first pregnancy. I hosted her baby shower; I so enjoyed her company and was delighted when she gave birth to a baby boy named Ben. I moved back to SD, got pregnant with Briggs shortly after she had Ben; at first we stayed in touch- so much to share! But our conversations decreased slowly over time, until we weren’t calling anymore. I didn’t know why, exactly, chalked it up to being busy moms. I found out years later that she’d experienced three miscarriages, so I reached out again, but never heard back. Turns out, she went on to suffer three more miscarriages after that- six in all. I wanted to be supportive, but didn’t know how…any of my words as a mom who hadn’t experienced that sounded like an idle tale.
How do we know the difference between good news and an idle tale-especially in the midst of grief? Peter’s response tells us that good news is only believable in the right state of mind…and heart. The process of grief is real and cannot be rushed. My friend knows it well. After each miscarriage, she got a lot of unsolicited feedback, the hardest for her to hear was this: “Cheer up! At least you have one beautiful child.” Over and over she heard this idle tale, carving more pain into her grieving heart. See, it may have been objectively true, Ben is a wonderful child, but “Cheer up!” never works when it’s said at the wrong time.
Today, hearing Jesus’ story unfold with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to be like, “duh, Peter, that’s what Jesus has been saying all along, he’s gonna rise from the dead- I know, because I heard him say it back in Luke chapter 9! Cheer up already, Jesus conquers death!” Not helpful, right?
I know you’ve been through pain too…maybe you’re grieving even today. The loss of a friend, a parent, or even a child, no one wants their grief to be minimized with a cheery little statement- and maybe Easter doesn’t feel so happy this year. Let grief take its course, don’t rush your heart. But when you sense an opening, recall this story- THE story of resurrection hope; it’s for you to claim as good news in your life too.
See, Peter’s “idle tale” turned into hope when he made the choice to run to the tomb and claim the good news for himself. No one can do that for you. The women first to the tomb doubted too, but their hearts were opened by these words, “why do you look for the living among the dead?” Good news remains an idle tale unless we claim it for ourselves–always with the help of Christ.
In Luke 18 Jesus says, “What is impossible for people is possible with God.” Can you believe that the impossibility you wait on might just be possible? It’s okay if you can’t at first. Life is hard to manage. Beloveds relapse back into addiction. Friends betray us. Mental illness persists. Businesses fail. Chronic pain lingers. Parents die. Children die. Families are separated by war. This is the stuff of life, and it's good to grieve.
But if there’s ever a day to claim the good news that Christ’s love is powerful enough to transform every human grief- it’s today. Friends, it’s EASTER! Jesus says, I have come so that you may have life and have it in abundance. There’s no part of life, especially the hard parts, that Jesus doesn’t know intimately, within his very being. And there’s NO part of your life outside the realm of God’s hope.
After experiencing 6 miscarriages, my friend had just about given up hope on having another child. But she and God persisted, and I received a truly hopeful Christmas card one year–news of another baby boy added to their precious family. A rainbow baby, as they say. And then a daughter. Three beautiful children who fill her life with love. Hope is not predictable- it wouldn’t be hope if it were. My own cousin shares a similar story, except without a happy ending. She remains in grief for the children she doesn’t have. I certainly have no “cheer up” speech prepared for her- or for anyone in the throes of grief.
But I do believe deep in my being that Christ is in the business of transforming idle tales into stories of redemption. And only God knows how it will unfold for you and for me. Until we have good news to claim, until that moment when we can be like the disciples walking home from an empty tomb, “amazed at what can happen,” let’s wait on it together, on behalf of one another, trusting that what is impossible for us is always possible for the God who conquered death itself.
After Jesus had said these things, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”
39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Jesus knows. Sometimes I forget this- he KNOWS on that donkey ride into Jerusalem what awaits him. He’s been foreshadowing it for his disciples. In Matthew 20 we hear him say to his 12 disciples, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!" He KNOWS! In fact, he can probably already feel the stab of betrayal, the pain of tearing flesh, the merciless hot sun, the final gasp.
Even so, less than a week before his last breath, he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. And he readily accepts this blessing spoken over him, “Blessed in the king who comes in the name of the Lord.” I wonder if Jesus felt that blessing—or something else entirely–knowing what was about to take place? We can’t know exactly how Jesus felt, but we know that he embraced his fate with as much courage as humanity has ever seen. He embraces this blessing over his body too: “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.”
How many of us, when we KNOW something hard is going to happen- allow ourselves to embody peace? It’s mostly the opposite, right? We get anxious, maybe so unnerved that we begin to question ourselves. Self-doubt sinks in, our bodies begin to shake, our heart beats faster. Maybe we want to avoid the challenge at all costs. All of this is totally normal. To be human is to react against what is hard. This is why it takes a God like Jesus to reveal a NEW way of being at peace, even when turmoil surrounds us.
I don’t know about you, but I often seek to create my own peace by changing my environment or circumstances; that works a little bit, right? When I’m anxious and go for a walk or run, my mind clears and my spirit feels rejuvenated….but I return to the same life circumstances that caused my anxiety in the first place. Unless….I allow that time away to change my heart, my spirit. Until I recognize that no amount of human effort is going to create peace, I won’t be open to the dramatic change Holy Spirit within me can create. Recall from last week- that spiritual change requires vulnerability.
See, that’s what makes Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem triumphant- he KNOWS what’s about to happen to him, and he embodies peace anyway. How? He’s got Holy Spirit. It’s the only explanation for this scene, in which Jesus faces his greatest fears with a clear mind and heart: “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” I tend to think it's a lot harder for us non-God humans to do this; but then again, I can easily get distracted from this truth: we ALSO have Holy Spirit in us. We ALSO get to choose to embody peace, despite whatever comes our way. We have the chance to change our hearts through the power of Christ. Sure it takes practice and commitment and faith- but it IS possible to be at peace regardless of our circumstances.
On Monday- with my group of cool contemplative pastors on zoom, we heard this devotional on Inner Peace from Daily Word Devotionals
I think peace. I feel peace. I am peace.
Peace lives in my heart. At the place within me where all appearances of separation dissolve, I feel only peace, only God, only oneness. This peace is always mine, part of my divine inheritance. I carry it with me through every experience, every moment of the day.
Nothing can destroy or even disturb my peace when I invite the divine presence, the Christ of my being, to be my constant guide. A passing thought of fear, worry, or anger is a reminder to breathe, to release negative energy, to embrace peace.
I feel renewed when I meditate, enjoy a walk in a peaceful garden, or take a moment to appreciate natural beauty wherever I find it. My indwelling peace manifests all around me as beauty, harmony, and bliss.
May the Lord give strength to God’s people! May the Lord bless God’s people with peace! – Psalm 29:11
Only God could have known how much my spirit needed that message on Monday. Just 5 minutes prior, I had lost my patience with my brilliant children who still can't seem to put their socks and shoes on in the morning before school! With my heart still racing a bit, I logged onto that zoom call- and I heard this word, “peace lives in my heart” and I knew it to be true. Even when I don’t pay attention to it, peace is within me. If only I make space to discover it- to practice peace…then I am drawn closer to the Prince of Peace who paved the way for me.
What do you need to do to discover your own peaceful spirit? What voices might need quieting in order to hear the still-speaking voice of the Prince of Peace? What parts of your spirit feel broken, in need of the healing light peace can bring? How will YOU embrace the peace that lives within your heart this Holy Week? I’m not saying it’s easy- or convenient, or even natural. Embodying peace is perhaps the hardest work of all- but you are worth it- you were certainly worth it to Christ as he accepted his fate with courage and peace.
This Holy Week, we remember that joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin. Faith is not the opposite of despair, but the very road through it. Hope–resurrection hope– cannot come without first experiencing the grief of loss. Peace is not possible in this world until we discover the peace that lives within us. PEACE is the fabric from which our spirits are formed. Allowing us to say, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” May we be people who yearn for peace, as we enter Holy Week in awe of the Prince of Peace who leads the way.
Even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Friends, the fact that you are worshiping today tells me you too are still pressing on. Still yearning to know redemption. Still open to the stirring of Spirit within. The UCC is certainly not perfect, but as a denomination we proclaim something about God that I just love. God is Still Speaking. The word of God isn’t written in scripture alone. God’s word has been written on our hearts! And we MUST take our habits of the heart seriously if we are to understand what this means. Paul says even I, who got all the rules right, I am STILL PRESSING ON to listen for God’s voice at work in me- because God is still speaking.
As preparation for ministry, many pastors receive a Master of Divinity. I was so grateful for my time at Princeton Theological Seminary, but in the midst of all the academic work and invigorating conversation with colleagues, one truth became quite clear. When it comes to getting God right…we never actually arrive. I didn’t really become a master of the divine. If anything, seminary taught me how little I know.
So here’s the very anticlimactic reality about being Christians: Following Jesus is a life-long practice. I mean really- we have to PRACTICE in order to align our Spirits with God’s. We heard about this in Ephesians a few weeks’ back, and one key practice is prayer. Paul sums up prayer so well here. He says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” Amen, right? Paul goes on to say, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” It’s about intimate connection with a still-speaking God.
Here’s the paradox of spiritual strength: Our ability to reach the spirit within often correlates with how willing we are to be vulnerable. You know, that uncomfortable feeling when we admit we don’t have it all together. Yep- that’s actually a GOOD thing, if we give God those broken pieces of our hearts, to make something unexpectedly beautiful.
So let’s get personal. Given what you know your spirit needs to thrive, what habits of the heart are you ready to form- or perhaps revisit after life got in the way of your practice? This is your work to do- I cannot tell you that what works for me will work for you. Trust me, I see the look AJ gives me when I tell him I’m going to jump on a zoom call to sit in silence with other pastors on a Monday morning… and I’m SO excited about it. I see him get all squirmy. Not every habit of the heart works for everyone. Each of us has a spiritual compass that needs certain practices, and mine are not yours.
But because mine ARE what I know best, let me tell you about this group of pastors who gather Monday mornings at 8am on a 45 minute zoom call. This week, after each of us shared what was occupying our minds and our hearts, we simply listened to a Taize-inspired song, repeated three times. This is roughly 15-20 minutes of silence, listening to one phrase over and over, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” The melodic variety of instruments moves in tandem with this very simple phrase: Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.
Here’s what happened in my Spirit. The first time the song played, I had a million thoughts swirling- not focused. The second time, roughly 5 minutes in, I started to feel at rest in the rhythm of the words, a few tears gently rolling down my cheek. If you know me well, you can appreciate this as a sign Spirit has begun stirring. Finally, during the 3rd time listening to: “Jesus, Remember me, when you come into your kingdom” a clear and centering thought emerged, something I’d learned long ago: “What is the chief end of humankind? To glorify God and enjoy God forever.”
I knew what God was speaking that day…as my very important to-do lists grow, text messages run on for days, Spirit is always with me, tenderly beckoning me back to what matters most, “Emily, pause and enjoy the glory of being a child of the living God. This is what you were created to do.” And the meaning of the words shifted for me. Jesus WILL remember me, will I take time to remember him? That is my spiritual practice I need most. To be present in each moment God has gifted me. To take time and wonder at what it all means. And because I’m an extrovert, I practice this habit of the heart in the company of others. I’m here to tell you, on Monday mornings, Spirit shows up on Zoom!
I want to know what works for you. What have you tried that helps you listen to the still speaking voice of God? I’d love to hear about spiritual practices you’ve found life-giving. Trust me, your response to these questions I ask-whether in conversation or email this week, or months later, it’s yet another confirmation that something really powerful happens when we are courageous enough to speak of matters of the heart. It doesn’t matter so much WHAT you practice so long as you DO! What works today might need to shift tomorrow- that’s okay too! We just keep on moving as Spirit moves, finding new and delightful ways to glorify God and enjoy God forever with this one precious and beautiful life we’ve been given. What spiritual habit are you ready to form today? There’s no better moment than now, as we enter Holy Week next Sunday.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.